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Macroeconomics

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In Part One and Part Two, we looked at how decreasing incomes, a declining birth rate, increased spending on phone bills, and the lack of cultural relevancy for the Internet have all led to shrinking markets for cultural goods like fashion, music, books, magazines, manga, and TV. In this installment, we examine how these changes affect the makeup of consumers within the cultural markets — a shift from mainstream consumers to mostly marginal subcultures.

Part Three: Mainstream Consumers vs. Marginal Subcultures

The collapse of spending on popular culture in Japan makes the country an important laboratory for understanding how a “cultural ecosystem” of consumers, producers, distributors, media, trend-spotters, and advertisers operates when market activity decreases. In this context, we must first look at the degree to which middle class consumers made up and then retreated from markets for cultural goods.

The rise of middle class consumers

After World War II, Japan’s entire economy was in shambles and spending focused exclusively on the basics for survival. By the late 1950s and through the late 1960s, however, a buoyant consumer culture emerged for upper middle class salaryman and business owning families. In the mid-1970s, the Japanese economy had undergone its “miracle” and now a broader Japanese middle class finally had enough income for discretionary spending on culture. As Japan entered the 1980s, most everyone in the country was consuming products related to music, fashion, and manga to an active degree — especially normal middle-class teenagers with “standard” Japanese tastes and conventional life paths.

Cultural producers and advertisers needed to target social segments with the largest possible size and the highest amount of discretionary income. At first this meant Tokyo’s upper and upper middle-class, and for obvious reasons, these groups had pioneered consumer culture in the immediate post-war. Even in the 1970s and 1980s, the affluent still had disproportionate buying power, so the first fully consumer magazines for young people like JJ and Popeye built those lifestyle expectations into their message. Middle middle class consumers likely read those magazines at first as aspirational, but theygrew rich enough in the bubble era to become the most dominant and lucrative segment of the market. As a result, manufacturers went for both the giant middle class mass, and the resulting mainstream culture ended up reflecting the values — or what were perceived to be the values — of standard middle-class consumers.

The market responds to the tastes of those actively buying goods, so consumer culture can feel akin to a political election. Consumers “vote” for their favorite products/creation through the act of purchase. Producers in turn continue the creation of popular items, stop making unpopular ones, and make new products based on the templates of previous hits. Unpopular manufacturers and producers disappear or adapt to winning formulas.

Thus at the height of the cultural market in Japan, normal, middle-class consumers had the most “voting power.” Whatever they liked, the market took most seriously. In the peak of the publishing industry in 1996, for example, issues of a mainstream “good girl” fashion magazine like non•no sold nearly a million copies — vastly more than any niche title like Popteen. Big apparel companies then made brands that fit within the non•no style. At the same time, styles and items with mass consumption like those seen in non•no or JJ enjoyed social legitimacy. In other words, whatever everyone was buying was the “right” thing to buy. Hence non•no had greater influence over the social norms of fashion than smaller titles thanks to huge sales and an industry structure built around it. This principle carried across most major cultural fields: mainstream consumers outnumbered niche consumers, and the markets overwhelmingly created products for mainstream tastes.

The rise and fall of “counter-consumers”

While mainstream culture mostly spoke to mass consumers, the 1990s saw disproportionate dominance on Japanese culture from a group of sophisticated, educated Tokyo-based consumers, who are best described as “counter-consumers.”

Japan had a strong political and artistic counter-culture in the 1960s, but as it shed its political aspects after 1972, this “underground” community gradually shifted their attention on creating physical goods sold to small niche audiences built upon tastes in opposition to the mainstream. For example, Kawakubo Rei aimed to push fashion into avant-garde directions through her line Comme des Garçons, which before its Paris debut had only a fractional audience in Japan. The members of this millieu then mostly participated and supported their community through the act of consumption — rather than politics or true Bohemian drop out culture. They were “counter-consumerists” — demonstrating personal allegiance to a deep niche through buying goods counter to mass culture.

They had likely expected their world to stay small, but as Japanese economy started its exceptional rise in the 1980s, the number of media and shopping buildings increased, and the well-informed types who curated content for these institutions moved to introduce more and more leading-edge culture to their increasingly sophisticated consumers. The PARCO Theatre in Shibuya, for example, opened with a performance from avant-garde dramatist Terayama Shuji. The end result was a twenty year “culture bubble” where Japan’s college and art-school students made up a powerful consumer bloc, supporting cutting-edge creators within Japan and buying products from all over the world with similar values. In this era, art magazines like Studio Voice sold over 100,000 copies, and unreadable post-modern works like Asada Akira’s Structure and Power became best-sellers.

This small group of Tokyo elite continued to stake out a huge claim on Japanese culture in the mid-1990s through magazines like Olive and relax. The street fashion style Ura-Harajuku — led by Fujiwara Hiroshi, who had started out in the underground London Nite scene — became the most popular look for men around 1997, and like Shibuya-kei musical artists like Pizzicato Five and Cornelius had certified chart hits. Members of this taste culture saw their values reflected in Tsutsumi Seiji’s Saison Group retail chains Parco, Muji, Wave, and Loft. Furthermore the small counter-consumerist minority ended up working themselves in the increasingly lucrative cultural industries, thus propagating this set of tastes and values to a new generation.

At the turn of the century, however, the counter-consumerist wave started crashing. As fewer and fewer middle-class consumers bought goods, they stopped experimenting on “weirder” products. Cultural producers could thus no longer justify making goods that worked as branding projects but had no financial return. Furthermore the new millennial youth generation could not understand the values of either the superficial Bubble kids or the cultural elite obsessed with Western art, music, and fashion. Magazines like Studio Voice and relax folded, while famed Shibuya record stores Maximum Joy and Zest closed their doors. Even HMV — the birthplace of Shibuya-kei as a mass-market genre — disappeared and was replaced with a Forever 21. Avant-garde brands returned to having tiny audiences. Comme des Garçons started up myriad new low-priced, logo-based lines that would appeal to younger and less daring customers.

The culture bubble had popped, and counter-consumerists went back underground.

Marginal subcultures on the fringes

From the 1960s to the end of the 1990s, the upper-middle class and middle-class controlled Japanese pop culture, yet there had always been a few important marginal youth consumer groups outside of the Japanese mainstream. The most solid subcultural voting blocs since the late 1970s have been the otaku — anti-social “nerds” interested in science fiction, comic books, video games, and sexualized little girls (lolicon) — and the yankii — “delinquent” non-urban working class youth with low levels of education and a blue-collar destiny. (The gyaru subculture — originally upper middle-class — should now be seen as the female manifestation of yankii values.)

These marginal groups are true minorities when compared to the mainstream market, but their size is not what makes them marginal. The use of “marginal” here measures the distance from the subcultural consumer segment to both middle-class social norms as well as from the tastemakers, gatekeepers, and workers within the large companies that produce pop culture. The counter-consumers, for example, were never large in number, but they had their hands on the reigns of the culture industry. Otaku may likely work at independent game publishers who make erotic titles, and ex-yankii run yankii magazines, but Japan’s largest and most hallowed culture companies such as Magazine House, Nintendo, Sony, and Uniqlo mostly hire graduates from Waseda, Keio, and other top universities. Otaku and yankii had strong outcast communities, but they essentially had to live on the fringes of pop culture. Yankii and otaku spent their formative years as true social outcasts — blamed as juvenile delinquents and sociopaths.

In times of a substantial and profitable mainstream consumer market, large companies were justified in ignoring the yankii and otaku segments as potential customers. Moreover the culture industry had a great risk in indulging too conspicuously in these subcultures, lest they offend their core of middle-class consumers. Fashion magazine non•no could not have shown a yankii or ganguro girl as a style icon — the editors’ curated style is not just different from the yankii style but fully premised on being a style that is not yankii. Accordingly the major consumer magazine publishers — Magazine House, Takarajima, Shueisha, and Kodansha — never made titles directly appealing to yankii youth. This was left to smaller fringe publishers like Kasakura and Million. Large advertisers — magazines’ true consumers — also demanded that media material be in “good taste” for the very same reasons. They wanted to connect with aspirational upper middle-class culture rather than despised outcast culture.

So until very recently, Japan’s culture industry — dominated by educated upper-middle class counter-consumers — worked hard to appeal to Japan’s large middle class. Tokyo’s powerful consumer base and Tokyo as industry center of cultural production made the wider culture gravitate towards the specific tastes of Tokyo upper middle-class youth. This, however, has drastically changed in the last decade with the fall of middle class consumerism. Next time we will look how the otaku and yankii have taken over the vacuum left by the middle-classes as they exit markets.

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